The Twitter airwaves were buzzing with the news of Maxim Lapierre being traded to the Anaheim Ducks yesterday evening, and the slumping Montreal Canadiens were in Florida to take on the Panthers.
The game was the seventh and final match of a brutal end-of-year road trip for the Habs that had seen them drop all but one decision. After going 1-5 so far on the road trip, to say that the Canadiens needed the win would be the understatement of the year!
The game started off with good rhythm for both teams, until the Canadiens got themselves into penalty trouble. Montreal again spent too much time in the penalty box, handing the Panthers three power plays in the first period alone and six on the night.
But the 11th place Panthers weren't able to muster much with the man advantage as the Canadiens' penalty killers went to work, successfully killing all six PKs.
After a sleeper of a first period, Florida opened the scoring 28 seconds into the second when Stephen Weiss was left alone in front to pot a Christopher Higgins rebound.
Dmitry Kulikov followed that one up with the Panthers' second of the game 2:13 in, and all seemed lost for the Habs.
Their body language slumped and they looked like a defeated squad that was feeling sorry for themselves.
Fortunately for the Canadiens, new comer James Wizniewski breathed life into the depressed-looking Habs when he fired a howitzer past Tomas Vokoun on the power play to make it a one goal game.
The score brought the Canadiens back to life and they poured it on, outshooting the Panthers 21-10 in the second frame and tying the game less than two minutes later on another power play.
The teams were deadlocked heading into overtime with the Habs outshooting the Panthers 46-22, until Wizniewski picked up the rebound off of a Michael Cammalleri shot to seal the deal at 3:41 of the extra frame.
Final score: Habs 3, Panthers 2
Habs' scorers: James Wisniewski (4,5), Brian Gionta (13)
Panthers' scorers: Stephen Weiss (11), Dmitry Kulikov (3)
Three stars: 1. James Wizniewski, 2. Tomas Vokoun, 3. Scott Gomez
1. The Canadiens looked tired.
The Habs had played less than 24 hours prior to the game in Florida and their level of fatigue was through the roof from the start of the game. The Canadiens looked much like they did in the third period against Tampa the night before for most of the first half of the game, which is to say not very good.
They were losing all of the 1-on-1 battles, weren't skating, going back to the bench with their heads down and overall, just looked defeated.
Once the Panthers got on the board, that energy of defeat only amplified. Good thing they were able to score a couple of goals in the second period because that would have been a long back nine for the Habs!
2. The penalties have got to stop.
The Canadiens have given up 27 penalties over the last four games, or an average of seven penalty kills per game. Fortunately for the Canadiens, their 87.8% penalty kill continues to be at the top of the league. As such, the Habs only let in three goals on those 27 opportunities.
That being said, the Habs must find a way to cut down on the lazy penalties like hooking, tripping, interference and the like. These penalties point to players who are trying to take short cuts, that perhaps aren't skating or giving that little extra effort and who end up sticking their arm out or using their stick as a result.
With the Canadiens are averaging 14 penalty killing minutes over the last four games, it means that their offensive players are sitting on the bench that whole time.
Players like Michael Cammalleri need to be on the ice in order to get a feel for the game and sitting for long stretches like that makes them less effective.
For a team that has trouble scoring, that doesn't sound like a winning formula.
3. Yannick Weber played his best game in a Habs uniform.
I don't think it is a coincidence that Weber played his best game during the same match that Jacques Martin used him alongside Spacek, on his natural right wing.
The move also puts Spacek back on the left side, a position he has played his entire career except for his one and a half seasons in Montreal.
While Weber also took a semi-regular shift with James Wizniewski, he was more often than not on the ice with Spacek and the result was excellent for the Habs. You could see that having a veteran presence to work with made a world of difference to Weber, who is usually paired with Alexandre Picard, especially lately.
Last night, Weber looked calm and poised with the puck—as did fellow youngster P.K. Subban, who was paired with Hal Gill—and he made smart passes and took quality shots on net.
More importantly, Weber had played well on the defensive side of the puck.
The same holds true for P.K. Subban. As much as Subban looked like a loose cannon over the last ten games or so, he has looked more in control on the ice the last two games. I think a lot of the credit for that goes to Hal Gill.
Weber and Subban are young players and the defensive positions have the biggest learning curves in hockey. As such, if either or both of these players are going to have success in the NHL, they need be paired with a veteran. No offense to Alexandre Picard, but he simply does not have the experience or the skill level to help players like Subban or Weber.
Why it has taken the coaching staff—who have over 1000 games coached in the NHL—this long to figure it out, I'll never know.
4. This team is made up of a bunch of islands.
The Habs pulled one out of the fire yesterday thanks to a successful power play that was driven by new guy, James Wizniewski.
Until the Canadiens scored, however, they looked like a bunch of individuals or islands out on the ice. There was little to no cohesion, the players looked lost or disinterested and many of them looked like they were trying figure it out all by themselves.
Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, Benoit Pouliot, Andrei Kostitsyn, Subban and even Maxim Lapierre before he was traded, are all players who look isolated.
They were dealing with their problems by themselves and not as a team.
Cammalleri looked frustrated at his lack of production, Subban was struggling since being benched by Martin, Gionta looked like he was being crushed by the team's lack of success, Pouliot looked like he was lost on the ice and just waiting to be benched and so on.
So as much as everyone has talked about this team being united and one of the best rooms they've played in, they no longer look like they are playing for each other.
In fact, most of the players look like they are trying to fix or ignore the problem all by themselves, and that is never a recipe for success on the ice.
While some of this can be attributed to the losing streak, it just looks like too many players are defeated even before the puck drops. That, to me, reeks of a team or players who have quit on their coach.
This is a room full of individuals rather than one cohesive unit that goes to battle for each other.
With the win last night, the Canadiens prevented their first four-game losing streak of the season and perhaps turned the ship in the right direction. But the situation is tenuous and if they can't start stringing together more than two wins in a row, I fear that things could take a turn for the worse.
5. Wizniewski makes a big difference to this team.
What a difference one player can make to the complexion of a team.
Wizniewski, known for his offensive abilities, an excellent first pass and his pugnacious play on the ice, so far seems to be the fix that cures whatever is ailing the Montreal Canadiens.
The Wiz got the party going last night, firing a bullet of a shot past Vokoun on the power play with traffic in front. The goal energized that Canadiens, who looked ready to pack it in, and sent them on the road to victory.
One of the biggest effects he has is on the power play, where he seems to settle the Canadiens down with his calm, patience from the back end.
That, coupled with his vision on the ice, reminds me a lot of Andrei Markov, who would calmly setup and execute the power play like an army general.
On the tying goal, Wizniewski calmly skated the puck into the offensive zone and circled at the blue line, allowing his teammates to get setup in the zone. This is something that has been missing from the Habs' power play all season, as they have too often tried to take a shot or make a play immediately after crossing the blue line.
In addition, when Wizniewski shoots the puck he has his head up, which allows him to properly read the play rather than shooting it into the defender's shin pads.
The ability to setup and to calmly see what is going on on the ice before making a pass, taking a shot or making any other decision is a crucial ingredient to PP success.
Players like Subban and Weber have been rushing too much, shooting when there is no open lane or no traffic in front and making low percentage passes.
Wizniewski is a breath of fresh air and his abilities take considerable pressure off of Subban, Weber, Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek.
Wizniewski finished the night with three points (2G,1A), six shots on net, four blocked shots and 23:31 of ice time.
Perhaps some of what he's got will rub off on Subban and Weber!
Standings and Next Game
The win gives the Canadiens a 21-16-2 record, good for 44 points and eighth place overall in the Eastern Conference standings.
Ahead of the Canadiens are the usual suspects of Atlanta (46 points, two more games played), the Rangers (46 points, one game in hand) and the Boston Bruins (first in the Norhteast, 45 points, three games in hand).
The Hurricanes are sitting six points behind that Canadiens with three games in hand.
The Habs now mercifully travel back to the comfy climes in Montreal, where they take on the Atlanta Thrashers in a 1:00 pm matinee on Sunday before having three days off.
The game is a huge four-pointer against a team the Habs are in direct competition with for a playoff spot. As such, you'd hope they carry some momentum from their inspired comeback win over the Panthers into Sunday's game.
On a different note, I want to take this opportunity to once again wish you and yours a happy new year! All the best in 2011!